Officials went through a power-point presentation as 60 people watched mutely
Local BJP leaders try to encourage those present to support the project
“Since the mines opened, the groundwater has turned red due to iron deposits”
Dantewada: “Is there anyone in this room from Kadampal village?” asked presiding officer Emil Lakra at the environmental public hearing held at the Collector's office in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh. “Anyone from Cholnar? Hiroli? Goomiapal? Madari?”
Not a single project-affected person stood up, but the hearing for the expansion of mining operations of the National Mineral Development Corporation's Kirandul project continued regardless. NMDC officials briskly went through a power-point presentation filled with tables, bullet-points and contour maps as the gathering of about 50 women and 10 men, collected by the NMDC and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, watched mutely.
While the NMDC has operated in the area since the 1960s, the new project will be a joint-venture with the Chhattisgarh Mineral Development Corporation and seek to mine a 414 hectare area identified as “Deposit 13” in the hilly area surrounding Kirandul.
When interviewed by The Hindu, some of the men at the gathering admitted to working as contract labourers in NMDC projects; three boys, aged about 13, said they had come because their uncle was catering for the event. A woman said she headed a self-help group that sold bamboo products to the NMDC, but declined to give her name.
In the open forum following the presentation, local BJP leaders tried their best to encourage those present to support the project. “Any praise of the existing NMDC projects is too little,” said Prabha Upadhyaya, of the BJP's Mahila Mandal (Women's wing). “If the NMDC hadn't come to Bastar, we would never have progressed at all,” said her colleague Anju Rai.
Soon after, the meeting was called to a close.
Forty km away in Kirandul, hundreds of Adivasi villagers from 58 villages surrounding the proposed mining area gathered to protest against the hearing, which they termed as invalid since it did not represent the views of those most-affected by the project.
“We boycotted the hearing because it was held 50 km away from the project site,” said Manish Kunjam, leader of the Adivasi Mahasabha — the organisation that orchestrated the process, “Why can't the public hearing be held at the site of the project?”
For the last two days, members of the Mahasabha have encircled the Kirandul Project in a bid to have their demands heard. “The biggest issue is that of water,” said Kunjam, “In the years since the mines first opened, the groundwater in the area has turned red due to iron deposits.”
The Mahasabha has put forward a charter of 10 demands, including compensation for illnesses caused by the impure water, a 1,000-seat school for the children in affected areas, employee-level health benefits for villagers in affected areas, and employment at the NMDC for the locals.
“The hearing was held in Dantewada in light of the security situation in Kirandul,” said Mr. Lakra, referring to the presence of armed cadre of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in large swathes of the district, “We have included the demands of the Adivasi Mahasabha in the meeting minutes. The entire file shall be forwarded to the Ministry of Environment and Forests in Delhi and a decision shall be taken by the Centre.”